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What we know—and still don’t know—about Easter Island

The Polynesian island has intrigued generations of Western explorers and scholars. But much of what they had previously assumed is wrong

In 1722, in a remote expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen squinted out from the deck of his flagship at a triangle of land sitting on the horizon. Roggeveen had set sail nearly a year earlier to explore the uncharted seas west of South America. His aim: to find the mythic Terra Australis Incognita, the ‘unknown land of the south’, and map a western trade route to the lucrative spice markets of Southeast Asia.

Rounding Cape Horn, his three ships spent nearly a month on the Juan Fernández Islands, over 400 miles off the coast of…

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